Magpie Mind

I’ve always liked magpies – you know how you sometimes feel a particular colour is your colour; a particular object is your lucky object, a particular animal may be your totem? I’ve always felt magpies were my bird. I don’t mind them in ones, twos or threes, even though the sight of one is supposed to presage Sorrow, two Joy etc. I even named a house Magpie Corner once, because the garden and the trees around it always seemed be full of black and white birds.

However, let’s start off with butterflies and get back to the magpies.

My father was always telling my mother she had a butterfly mind. This was the sort of thing men said to women back in the fifties and sixties, when women were assumed to have butterfly minds – it was more or less a compliment. In those days it was also all right to refer to one’s wife as The Little Woman, and make amused comments about women drivers and the obvious dangers their clumsy handling of any machine bigger than a blender must pose to rightful, masculine, users of the road. Heaven forefend that you should be or even look clever, or be able to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. I remember being told, repeatedly, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Fortunately the need for glasses did not arise until – more by accident than design, on his part or mine – I had bagged myself a husband, although I doubt if this particular husband would have noticed whether I was wearing glasses or not. He didn’t look at people – could paint in oils the perfect steam engine, traction-engine or Spitfire; the perfect landscape of stark winter trees, silent lakes, lowering storm-clouds – and yet could not draw a recognisable charcoal sketch of me or produce anything more than a blurred and distant human figure.

But I digress. In fact I digress (butterflies) then I digress again (sixties sexism) then again (spectacles) then again (ex-husbands). I’m always doing that. My father would say, of course, that I have a butterfly mind, inherited from my mother.

My father did have a point, though he might have resisted making it so frequently. My mother did flit from one ‘hobby’ to the next, from jigsaw puzzles to painting cherries on jam-jars, to weaving wicker baskets to mowing careful patterns in the lawn, to machine-knitting (hell on earth, that was, for all of us) to reading the whole of Dickens. And she didn’t listen much.

In latter years we used to meet in garden centres for lunch. I never managed to get more than half a sentence out without her eyes drifting away and focussing on something just over my shoulder – some cyclists passing by in the road, maybe – or wondering aloud why the service was so slow, or whether the man behind the counter was married to the lady behind the counter or just a distant cousin. In my own conversations I feel compelled to repeat everything, sometimes two or three times over. I can’t believe the other person will have been paying attention beyond the first few words. I can hear myself doing it, I wish I didn’t do it but I can’t seem to stop. It’s engrained.

I can’t really criticise, of course. Even a childhood blighted by a butterfly mind does not prevent you from having to make do with the exact same mind yourself. Nowadays I understand it a little more. I see what she, and I, and Ex all had in common. None of us can be blamed, although we were blamed, not to mention ridiculed. Other people blamed us, we blamed ourselves and we blamed each other.

Nowadays I tend to put a more positive spin on it. I call it Magpie Mind. All three of us were creative. Like magpies we collected bright, shiny impressions, odd bits of information other people missed. I collected words, the assonances and dissonances of words, the vapour trail left by words, their echoes. I collected sudden washes of sadness, subtle changes in the light, the patterns made by everything, the poetry that’s in the pity. What you get is a mind that makes odd connections between things, a mind that can spark at random and in any direction, bringing disparate ideas and pieces of information together and making something unexpected out of them.

Ex took it for granted that everyone ‘saw’ the world as he saw it. He once told me that anyone was capable of painting like he did – they just needed to be taught. He could remember the colour of a piece of fabric throughout a lengthy shopping expedition and then select an exactly matching reel of cotton in the sewing shop. He wasn’t even trying to remember.

He told me once that when I looked in a puddle I should analyse the colours that were actually there, the blues and the greens, the pinks and purples, even. He said people assumed puddles were grey because that was the colour they thought of them as. Most people didn’t bother to look properly. After that I tried to look properly but it didn’t help. Puddles still appeared mostly grey.

Mum collected crafts, and colours, and fleeting, subconscious impressions. She put all her creativity and long days of work into her garden. She told me once not to worry about plants in a border ‘clashing’ because in nature everything was designed to go with everything else. And sometimes, even though she has not been listening to a word I say, she seems to know what I’m feeling. Visiting her at the Home on Sunday, she spoke in gibberish for half an hour or so, fighting with no-words and wrong-words before sinking back and closing her eyes, exhausted. I was realising that we would never, now, have that long-awaited ‘proper conversation’.

And just as I was realising it she reached up and touched my cheek. You girls, she said. You girls.

The lady vanishes

I did try to run away once. I ran away to the Recreation Ground and sat beneath some horse chestnut trees in the rain. From beneath these same chestnut trees, some years later, I was to remove a conker and grow it in a pot for my Brownies gardener’s badge. We measured it with a knitting needle. Basically, I think Mum grew it. I lost interest in things pretty quick.

Anyway, I sat under these horse chestnuts in the rain and a woman came and spoke to me, and then she went away again. And I wondered why Mum hadn’t come looking for me. She must be beside herself by now.

I waited a lot longer. She still didn’t come. It kept on raining. Eventually, being five or six or so, and having no idea what to do next, I went home. There didn’t seem to be much of a reaction one way or another. Didn’t bother to run away again.

Occasionally I have wondered – if I did run away – supposing I’d done something dreadful, or someone had accused me of doing something dreadful although in fact I hadn’t done the dreadful thing – where would I go? Of course, nowadays the disappearing act would have to involve twelve cats. I couldn’t run away and leave them.

I looked up a website – it seems to be full of these really serious men who practice something called prepping. I had been under the impression prepping was for nuclear apocalypse or similar, but these seem to be prepping for all manner of desperate scenarios, including having broken out of prison or having murdered someone, to avoid going into prison.

There’s all sorts of suggestions. I could dye my hair red and shave off my beard, or grow one if I didn’t have one. Both of those are no-no’s. I’m allergic to hair dye and the beard bit, well… testosterone deficit. I could bulk out my face with cotton-wool. Really, it doesn’t need bulking out any more.

(This reminds me of a sales event I perforce attended last Friday during which, as a species of bonding exercise, a man salesperson and a lady salesperson tried to outdo one another in the matter of stuffing their cheeks with marshmallows. The lady salesperson won, if you call looking grotesque and having to vomit soggy marshmallows into a bin sack in front of everyone afterwards winning. The man salesperson didn’t try very hard.)

I should – apparently – ask to stay the night with someone I used to be close to but have rather lost contact with, like an occasional sex partner, who would be unaware of any current… murders or whatever. Close to, Huh! Occasional sex partner, Huh!

One chap was quite specific. He would, he said, travel to Central Bosnia, where he has in-laws. He would go to a place called Gore Turbe, close to Travnik… This is all very well but, didn’t he just tell everyone where to look?

So maybe I ought to keep my secret destination to myself. In any case, it seems to me there’s an easy enough way to be invisible. Travel to a strange town, with your worldly goods in a shopping bag rather than a suitcase. Be over fifty and female. Sit around in a shopping mall or occupy the corner of a park bench. Shuffle anywhere crowded or even anywhere not – down a windswept street, on a station platform – and pause occasionally to shift that heavy bag onto the other shoulder. Sit by the window in a coffee shop, watching the rain and wearing a preoccupied look.

Don’t worry, no one will see you.


Fork Goodness Sake


WordPress, you are scraping the barrel. Presumably soon it will be Knife or even… wait for it… Spoon.

How about Potato-Masher, Ceramic Hob or Whisk? All equally depressing. Maybe they’ve been done already. Honestly, fork – a word that reminds me of nothing – apart from the obvious rude word of similar pronunciation (which everyone else will no doubt seize upon) and late tiny comedian Ronnie Corbett and his sketch about the four candles/fork-handles. Yes, large man goes into hardware shop and demands fork-handles. Little man behind the counter goes away and comes back with… four candles. Ha ha.

Ha… ?

So I’ll just ramble on all Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness whilst pretending to write about forks.

Today I forced myself to leave the house. I’ve always been somewhat reclusive but since moving here, to the End of the Earth (or England, anyway) where there is nothing and no one to tempt me from my portals, I have been turning into a veritable hermit. I even read some books about becoming a hermit at one stage. One was called A Pelican of the Wilderness. A good deal more interesting, as a title, than Fork.

Going out always involves Anxiety with a capital A. The more items going out involves, the greater the degree of uncertainty/variability to the enterprise and the longer the list of Bad Things That Might Possibly Happen. I don’t have that ability normal people seem to have, to have a long list of To Dos in front of them, but only worry about one at a time. If I have three To Dos I am forced to fear all three simultaneously and in precisely equal measure. But – sometimes it can’t be helped.

Today – number one – I had to go to the dentist. My worry-scape for that involved:

  • Timing – when to set off so as not to be too early or too late;
  • 5p pieces – have huge numbers of – tiny coins, size of washers – need to get rid of in that parking ticket machine – but how long will it take to feed £2 worth of 5p pieces (40?) into that parking ticket machine, and what if there’s some evil Man behind me, tapping his feet and sighing – what if my hands start shaking and I drop all the 5p pieces on the floor and have to do some sort of extended bunny dip in order to pick them up, and all the while he’s huffing and puffing?
  • What if there’s not a space in that car park at all? Sometimes there isn’t.
  • Dentist – is it the dentist or the hygienist this time? I can’t remember. Am I to be breathed-on and lectured, or spiked, polished and lectured?
  • Will it be Upstairs or Downstairs?
  • Should I take anything to read? Will I be able to concentrate to read, with the TV blaring in the corner showing endless Close Calls and Lucky Escapes on some channel I don’t usually watch?

Number two – oh God, another thing – I have to go to the tip, as it’s in the same Godawful town and I have to combine Things to save Petrol. Worry-scape:

  • What if I zoom straight past the entrance to the Household Recycling Centre, which is somewhat unexpected and disguised by the entrance to the station and a line of unfriendly-looking taxis?
  • What if there are too many cars in the tip and I have to do sort of manoeuvring, and I hit another car because I’ve reversed kind of crooked and then the man will get out and he’s bound to be a really horrid old man with a sort of tweedy cap and he’ll be so sarcastic and his wife, snooty-nosed cow, will be sitting in the passenger seat regarding me disapprovingly in the rear-view mirror and…
  • What if that bearded operative with the high-vis jacket comes over and wants to help me with the mountain of smelly black sacks I’ve just stacked in the back of the car? He doesn’t speak he just sort of leers at you and…
  • What if he doesn’t come over and I have to hike all these smelly black sacks up all those steps to that hellish skip-thing and heave them over the edge using all the strength in my ancient arms and… and then I’m bound to fall down the steps and then I’ll end up in hospital with a broken leg, maybe two broken legs and then who’s going to feed the cats?

Thirdly, to the vets.

  • What if it turns out really expensive and crashes my already severely stressed credit card and then I have to stand in the vets being embarrassed and trying to find another credit card in my wallet that won’t crash? How kind they’ll be to me. How silently-yet-audibly impatient all those waiting large-dog, gerbil and parakeet owners…
  • What if I cry, even though I don’t feel like I’m going to, when I see Rufus’s empty basket?
  • What if I start talking nineteen-to-the-dozen about Auntie Gladys or visiting Mum in the Home or the relative merits of different makes of saucepan? It could go either way.
  • What if it’s really hot in there and I have to wait and wait and wait, and I’ll be too self-conscious to take my cardigan off or maybe the vet will come out – the one who Did the Deed, and I’ll be forced to say Yes, Fine Thanks or talk about saucepans until she goes away again?

I have to worry about all those things before I set out, whilst I am driving along and all the time I am at each of those stops along the way. That’s what anxiety is like. Someone once described it as Fear Spread Thin. I prefer to think of it, in related terms, like Marmite: a little goes a very long way.


(Swarovski crystal embossed Marmite Jar, £2000 apparently. Why?)

But I went, and I accomplished all those tasks in four long hours of out-of-the-house-ness, and nothing very terrible went wrong. The only thing was that bus-driver gesticulating at me and doing those stupid-old-woman grimaces and shrugs through his giant windscreen because rather than confidently zooming out of the gap he had left for me into a fast-moving stream of traffic, I edged nervously out into the fast-moving stream of traffic.

So, on one side of the scales all three tasks completed without injury, humiliation or descent into madness: on the other side, baboon-faced and no doubt baboon-bottomed bus driver who deserves to get home tonight and find his wife has gone to Bingo and left him a tin of that slimy macaroni cheese (the even worse cheap version that is vaguely grey when it emerges from the tin, not even synthetic yellow) and a half-stale loaf of bread to make himself some toast to put it on.

Aha! – one side – the other side – therefore – a fork.


The Second Mrs Sanchez (iii)

She was dark, like the lady with the castanets on the plate on my mother’s wall. She wore a raincoat a bit like mine, only longer and black. I thought she must be older than my mother because of the long, sharp creases beside her mouth. Every now and then she turned to smile at me. I was glad of the company but also wished she’d go away. A train came and went and I lifted my feet off the ground, discreetly. When you were in the Rec, when you heard a train in the distance you had to do that. Feet off ground, hands off iron, that was the rule. I don’t know what would have happened to you if you didn’t.

After a while she asked if I had run away from home. She didn’t sound like the normal sort of grown-up, ready to tell you off – just making conversation. Afterwards I wondered why I got in the car. Even in those days they warned you not to get into cars.

When we reached the end of the road we should have turned right, but we turned left, heading towards the top road. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. By that time we had gone past the boundaries of my whole life’s territory, the few miles I had ever walked in one day. The road span past under the wheels. I looked out and saw white lines, zebra crossings, unfamiliar pavements; people on pavements unaware that I was being taken away for ever. I was in a bubble of silence, inside the long silver car; a wondering face at a window, a soon-to-be statistic. Too puzzled to protest. Too polite to cry.

The further we got away, the greater the grief became. I was tied to my mother, I suddenly understood. One end of the rope was buried somewhere around my middle, the other buried in her. The further apart we got the more it stretched and hurt. I cried out for my mother, silently; I thought she must be hearing me in her heart; would sense where I was, like radar; would come flying after me, a witch on a broom, vengeful and rescuing. The stretching feeling came to me in waves, in all the years that followed. They varied in intensity but they never stopped.

I wasn’t the only child Mrs Sanchez procured for Charlie, before that day or after; nor was Charlie the only man to make use of me. I was just one of Charlie’s possessions, and he was generous to his friends. We travelled abroad, to Spain and South America and back to Spain. Then, when they decided it was safe, we came back to England. I was their daughter as far as anyone knew, and my name was Anne-Marie.

Inevitably I learned. From Charlie Sanchez I learned that kindly old gentlemen can be paedophiles too, but that paedophiles can be human and, after a monstrous fashion, ordinary. From Mrs Sanchez I learned that all women lose their beauty in the end and when it goes any power it once sustained goes with it. I was growing into my brains and beauty just as Mrs Sanchez was fading out of hers. He would have got rid of her anyway, sooner or later. The stroke just made it easier.

I wouldn’t exactly have wished it on her, to be trapped in a chair unable to move or speak, yet understanding everything. I was the one who did the research and selected a quietly expensive nursing home in Inverness, reminding Charlie to fly up and visit her at long, but regular intervals. I never went there myself, but I was the one who made sure the fees were settled every month from Charlie’s business account. Eventually, of course, he divorced her.

I didn’t phone Rex to come and pick me up. I didn’t phone Charlie either. I made my own way back by train to my hotel room. That evening after dinner I went into the bathroom and experimented with my new image. I cut my hair with a pair of borrowed scissors. At first I tried to forget all I had learned about make-up, and do it as a twelve year-old might do. In the end I scrubbed it all off and left my face as naked as a child’s. Yes, I’d pass as a carer.

I changed my name for the third and final time.

I stole a long knife from the kitchens as I left for Inverness.


The Second Mrs Sanchez (ii)

I had prepared myself for changes in the way things looked, but not for the possibility that my mother and father would actually not be there, waiting. My mother had become a mental snapshot, pinned to the last time I saw her: a harassed woman in a tiled kitchen, frying something, and stirring something in a saucepan with the other hand.

She always seemed to have a headache. Aspirins every four hours. She never seemed happy. After a while she curled up on the sofa a lot in the middle of the day with her eyes closed. Nan came to do the dusting and the ironing. My mother didn’t want to play tennis in the road any more. Once upon a time she could do better cartwheels than me. She just stopped.

They argued behind the bedroom door, their voices rising and falling – a deep voice and a high voice, his angry, hers tearful. It was because of me. The sound of them flooded through wood and brick and paper; it came at me from all directions. I kept hearing my name. Because of me she cried. Because she cried he hit me. It was my fault for pulling my sister’s hair. For making a noise. My fault the headaches and the housework left undone. I bled my mother dry.

I knocked on the door of what used to be Mrs Jacobs’ house. A man came round the side, eventually, with no shirt on; looked like he’d been bricklaying. Somewhere in the background a radio was playing Stairway to Heaven. Everything in sharp focus, sights and sounds. The music was circling in my stomach, shooting out along my arms, seeping from my finger-ends. Any moment now I was going to explode – all music, all light, all pain.

No-shirt didn’t seem to have noticed anything odd about me. He told me the house had been on the market for a couple of weeks. The woman had died. Some people said… Husband had buggered off long since, and one daughter went to Australia. There were rumours about another daughter but he didn’t know the details. He obviously thought I might be  interested in buying, and people like to tell what they know. He was looking me up and down like meat, the way men do. I could hear his thoughts as well as if he’d spoken them out loud.

I asked him if the lady’s name was Mrs Johnson. He didn’t know, but the first name was definitely Rosa. His answer killed me.

I retraced the path I took all those years ago when I was running away; under the railway bridge, along by the railings. Maybe the Rec was different too; I didn’t notice. I found myself sitting on the same old bench under the horse chestnut trees, in the deep green shade, watching English children playing English games, but all I could think about was the day I ran away.

I was seven years old. It was raining, and the trees were in full leaf. A whole row of horse chestnut trees dripping, dripping, and me sat on the bench underneath. I looked out over that vast green space, where usually there were other children playing. My sight was childhood sharp and I could make out the black ripples in the bark on the silver birches opposite. They brought us out here on a nature walk once, from Absalom Infants over the back, beyond the railway line; a ragged line in toggle-fastened coats, dead mittens dangling from elastic threaded through the sleeves, the girls’ hair scraped back in ribbon bows, the boys with scabs and grey concertina socks.

Here we played on the swings. Some kids swung so high they went over the bar and the chain wrapped round the top. In those days there were no wood chippings, only concrete to fall on. Here, the night before bonfire night, Michael Stelmazuk from my class chucked a firework at me, that landed against my heel and burnt.

Here, under this tree, I picked up the conker that I took home to Mum, still in its spiked green shell. We prised it out and planted it in a flowerpot, to grow for my gardener’s badge, measuring it against a knitting needle. Here, before the sofa days began, Mum chased a cat with a mouse in its mouth, brandishing her bicycle pump, and I tried to curl up into myself and disappear. She hated to be stared at too, but she still chased.

I was sitting on this bench with the rain dripping down my neck. I had on my school raincoat (I never took it off, even in summer). The water should have sizzled when it touched me, I was so angry. So angry, I kept repeating to myself. I hate them. I hate her. I’m never going back. Although I meant it, at the same time I didn’t. Even as I muttered, at the back of my mind I could see myself walking back down the road, under the bridge, turning the corner into Gallipoli Street, sulky and silent turning the back door handle. Fried bread and dripping for tea.

The first Mrs Sanchez came and sat on the bench – this bench – next to me. For a while we pretended not to notice one another.

The Second Mrs Sanchez (i)

Rex dropped me off at Gallipoli Street. It must have looked odd, even in this anonymous neighbourhood, a chauffeured silver limo, and a woman like me getting out.

Rex knows me. He knows me better than Charlie – not that that’s saying much. Rex and I have occasionally, swiftly, made love: once in a wood up against a tree, once in the toilets of a motorway café. We do not talk about these occasions. Rex presumably enjoyed them, though it was difficult to tell. He remained the chauffeur throughout. And afterwards, sweating slightly in his tight grey uniform, he opened the rear passenger door for me with a slight bow, and drove me on towards my destination. I probably wouldn’t have objected if he’d called me Anne-Marie instead of Mrs Sanchez after that, when nobody was about, but he never did.

Rex may or may not be in love with me. Charlie, my husband, is not. It is irrelevant in both cases. Charlie is coming up for seventy-five and no longer bothers me for sex. Not that he ever did bother me much, after I turned fourteen. He likes them young. I was eight when he first had me. I’m older now, but not too old to turn heads. My hair is long, expensively thick; expensively sunbleached blonde. I wear real gold bangles on my suntanned arms. I’m a different kind of asset to Charlie now: business partner, status symbol. Nurse.

Rex is worried about me. I haven’t told him the reason for my visit but he seems to know anyway. He hands me a slip of paper with his address and home telephone number on it. He lives in Camden, London. I never imagined him actually living somewhere.

“I won’t be far away, Mrs Sanchez. Give me a ring, I can be here in a couple of hours.” I find that I am nervous, don’t want to let him go. On impulse I lean into the driver’s side of the car to kiss him. He isn’t expecting it. My lips land clumsily on his rough cheek. For a second his eyes flash up white and frightened. We are equals.

Gallipoli Street. So narrow. Cars parked on either side; a single car’s width down the middle. Two-way traffic sashaying from gap to gap. When I was here before, the pavements seemed like mountains, each bump and hollow known. I sat here, on the pavement, just to the right of this yellow bungalow, and watched the twigs careering down the gutter to the drain after a storm in the night. Here was where I lay on my stomach one afternoon and watched the ants. A discarded pear drop, half-sucked, maybe mine, the ants homing in on it from all directions. Several got stuck, struggling on the surface of this new sugar planet. It didn’t seem to deter the others.

My name was Marianne in those days. My house was further along, on the left-hand side, past Elif Vere where Miss File lived. I never understood why it wasn’t Elif Vera. Past Ferndean, still with the half moon of stained glass above the front door. The lady there wore a small dead fox round her neck, the mouth biting into the tail. A tippet, Nan called it. A fur tippet. Past the rundown place where Mrs Jacobs lived, who collected aprons – small frilly cotton ones she selected from Frank’s the Grocers (I saw her) and wore one on top of the other. An apron to keep an apron clean, to keep another apron clean. And then number thirty-four where I was born and spent the first seven years of my life.

I had prepared myself for change. Of course it wouldn’t look the same. I noted the concrete strip down the side, where once there had been grass, and the up-and-over garage my father used as a shed; where he mended his bicycle and smoothed bits of wood with a plane. Wood curls coming out of the top. The laburnum tree, which once had rained small black seeds all over the pavement, had been cut down. How uninteresting this house had been to me then. How much I would give now, for everything to be back exactly as it was, when I was seven years old.

Why were there no curtains? I walked to the end of the garden wall, and found the estate agents’ sign planted in a corner by the behind it. The sign had a picture of a polar bear. I couldn’t think why. I continued to worry about the polar bear, not letting myself think, not letting myself take in the implication of the words FOR SALE.